It’s been about two months since my first blog post about the custom home my husband and I are building. While that post was more than a month ago, we actually began talking with our builder and the architect four months ago. In that blog I told you that we fired architect #1 and moved on to a hot shot architect #2. Well after a lot of back and forth between these two guys, we ended up back where we started with the first guy (SMH). You might be wondering what the heck is going on and trust me, we are wondering the same thing most days.
I’ve already learned two valuable lessons that I want to pass along to you. First, be realistic about the timeline and how long you are willing to live in limbo while your new home is being built. I went into this thinking we had a buy or build decision to make. The reality was, we were making a lifestyle decision for our family for the next ~18 months vs 3 months if we bought an existing home. If you choose to build a truly custom home, prepare yourself for six months or more of upfront research, team building (i.e. builder, architect and, if using one, interior designer), in addition to land procurement and floorplan design before you can begin to count the 12 months of actual construction. Since we just relocated this means living in the apartment even longer while incurring fees for things like storage of our belongings and rental furniture. It’s also difficult to host holidays, family birthday parties and playdates but given the ongoing pandemic, we aren’t doing those things right now anyway. I understood that the building process could take up to a year, longer if we were indecisive or made lots of changes along the way. No worries I thought, I’m quite decisive and very thorough with both fact finding and planning even during high pressure situations. We were committed to doing our part by making selections early and sticking with them. We were woefully unprepared for this four to six month period of planning and what feels like unproductive discussions. Second, interview with great scrutiny multiple builders, architects and interior design firms. Ask for references, go see their work in person and review samples of the type of contracts and planning schedules your builder uses. I know this may seem like a no-brainer but when you’re stressed by unpredictable market conditions, the need to stabilize a living situation for your family and other factors, you may find yourself making decisions based on a few positive signals rather than being guided by a dispassionate set of facts.
We shortcut these steps by emotionally committing to the builder before meeting with his prior clients and touring his homes. We also let the builder suggest an architect, suggest we change to architect #2 and then go back to architect #1. Thankfully when we did see the builder’s work it was beautiful and his past clients were really pleased. The situation with the architects did not turn out as well. We were very clear from the beginning about our must-haves, the layout of the interior and we even shared an inspiration photo of the front elevation. I created a shared Pinterest board with a section for every room of the home and I have a set of slides for every room which includes all the finishes and design details. Architect #1 has come back with a new and incorrect version of the floor plans with each iteration. We therefore pivoted to architect #2 who the builder said was an amazing problem solver and a “real artist”. Well he was right about the guy being an artist but the only problem solving he was interested in was taking our plans and turning them into his vision. He is a highly regarded visionary who designs for elite clients both residential and commercial throughout the country. I guess he wasn’t used to homebuilders having their own vision and not handing the reins over to him entirely. Everytime we had to have either of these guys make changes it would take anywhere from three to six weeks. Architectural firms can be expensive and changes are not made for free. The days in between were completely silent and for someone like me with a bias for action, this was agonizing. Your relationship management and communication skills are tested during the homebuilding process, greatly. When you’ve assembled a team the last thing you want to do is constantly change people out because you made poor team choices. The initial planning steps should be considered in your overall timeline or you can quickly become frustrated with your team which can make the rest of the process unpleasant for everyone involved.
I’m certainly not an expert. I’m merely sharing my experiences and learnings to help others who may be curious about our building journey. If you have not picked up on this already I will lovingly warn you, building a custom home is very different from remodeling an existing home or even production building. Production building is when you have a builder that builds many homes with a set of floor plans and finishes you can select from. They already have land purchased, often creating new home developments. There is also the option to build a “spec home”. When building a spec home, the buyer works with a builder who has purchased a lot to modify a home that they are in the process of building already. A fully custom home involves the homeowner making every decision and when I say every decision, I mean EVERY DECISION. There is typically nothing already in place and anything is possible. That’s both a pro and a con. Because we very quickly decided to build after looking at a dozen existing homes that needed to be fully remodeled to our liking, we rushed a few of the most critical steps in the custom building process. I did some research, albeit fast, and learned that we had to choose a builder we could trust and find land that would be worth a long term investment with strong resale value. We selected a location and plot of land that is beautiful, expansive and should continue to increase in value overtime. Our trusted and incredible Real Estate Broker helped us find land that was already for sale by a luxury homebuilder. She knew the builder and had a lot of insight into his background and the quality of homes he builds. We factored her opinion into our decision to work with him. In the area we selected there are already many estate homes owned by prominent CEOs, physicians, educators and their families. We could have purchased the land and built with anyone but after meeting the builder who owned this lot, we really liked him and what he had to say. He is also the father of a kid in my youngest daughter’s class and we felt like he was trustworthy and knowledgeable. We’re still relatively pleased with the builder but now we better understand his “language” and can more effectively interpret what’s factual information from salesmanship.
Another positive for us was that this land had already been surveyed, assessed and cleared of the former home. It’s super important to do your research on any piece of land you want to purchase before you invest in it. For us, this work had been done upfront by the builder. The cost of this lovely prework was passed along to us in the land cost but we think it was worth it. Among other advantages, we knew right away what utility access existed and how much impervious surface was available for us to use. A lack of knowledge about the types of utilities (i.e. natural vs propane gas or public vs well water) and their proximity to the home, can impact your budget and timeline significantly. Impervious building rules exist to protect water quality and wildlife habitats against pollution of navigable waters. Impervious surface ratios determine how large a home you can build and how much of the land you can use for things like patios, driveways, swimming pools etc. Basically, an impervious surface is any type of hard surface that is man-made that cannot retain or absorb water. I was thrilled to hear that we have plenty of impervious land available on our lot. We could not be happier with the land we’re building on.
So, how do we accelerate things and make some progress here? I started going to vendors and selecting finishes. We’ve met with cabinet makers, appliance, tile, flooring and plumbing fixture representatives. It’s very early to do this but it will help when we get to the detailed budget phase to know what we want and have about 90% of that decided already. I’ve also been able to cut the cost of some finishes down significantly, without sacrificing quality, using a rough budget the builder gave us and shopping around now rather than waiting until we are pressured by deadlines during construction.
Last week I’d had enough of the incomplete floor plans and early that Saturday morning I sat in my bed and sketched the plans myself on two sheets of looseleaf paper. When I met with the architect and builder, one stated he was “impressed and depressed” by both my design skills and the fact that I had to draw the plans. The other offered me a job. Funny, not funny guys.
I’m looking forward to our next meeting which I expect to be nothing less than productive at this point. The architect needed another week to put my sketches into CAD drawings and in the meantime, I’m selecting paint colors. We need all the positive vibes you can send our way and remember this is just the beginning of the project.